I was bouncing around on StumbleUpon (a fun website) when it took me to Neil Gaiman's blog and an entry he wrote based on a question from a reader on how to find an agent for his first novel.
Gaiman said he didn't really know the trick. He wrote and published a few books before he met the agent he works with now and with whom he has a good, creative writing relationship. So he asked a friend in the business--Teresa Nielsen Hayden--to give her tips for finding an agent for a novel.
To say the least, they are great because they primarily say that it's a complicated, challenging business to understand and that most people only know their small corner of it, which is why it's important to find people who either know the right corner you are looking for or who can help you make the series of connections that lead to finding the just right publishing option for you.
In her list she also offers more advice on what to watch out for than on how to do it, which makes sense. There are some deep holes out there (I fell into one with a collection of short stories I wrote) and people more interested in making money selling advice a la Tony Robbins than actually helping (I've seen these people's rather slick websites as well).
At any rate, here are her suggestions (find them here too):
1. If you're writing fiction, the True Secret Answer is "get an
offer." If you've got an offer, you can get an agent. If you don't
have an offer, you don't want the kind of agent you're likely to get.
a. If you're good enough to get published, having an agent may prove
helpful. If you aren't (yet), you definitely don't want the kind of
agent you're going to get.
i. There is no substitute for writing a book that people want to buy
and read. If you can do that, you can get published. If you can't, no
clever workaround will help, because we can't force people to buy and
read books they don't like.
b. Some ways you might get an agent without getting an offer: Be
obviously and extraordinarily good. Sell a lot of short stories. Have
some other seriously hot credentials.
2. Don't start by looking for an agent. Do your research first. Start
by learning about agents, submissions, publishing houses, the
industry, et cetera. Note: This is a huge subject.
a. No matter how you think it works, the publishing industry doesn't
work the way you think it does. This is true even for publishing
professionals. They know how their part of the industry works, and
they know a lot about adjacent areas, but the further afield they go,
the less reliable their expertise will be. People who aren't in the
industry generally don't have a clue.
i. A phenomenal number of articles about how publishing works are
written by people who don't know what they're talking about. This is
partly because writing about writing, or writing about publishing, is
what wanna-be authors do when they've given up on writing, but don't
yet want to admit it. It's also because a made-up version of the
publishing industry is going to be much simpler and more logical than
the real thing, and thus is easier to write about.
ii. Look askance at articles that credit some industry practice to the
stupidity of people working in the industry, who have failed to see
the simple and obvious solution the author of the article is about to
3. There are easily as many scam agents, useless agents, and clueless
agents as there are real ones. They all swap bad information with each
other. The difference is that the scammers know it's bad information.
a. You can't research this subject just by getting online and looking.
You have to stick to good sources.
4. Did I mention that any idiot can write a book about how to be a
writer? When you see someone who's never sold a book, but who's
written a book about how to get your book published, and said book was
published by a vanity house, and said author is nevertheless accepted
as an authority on the subject by a great many aspiring writers, you
know you've wandered into strange territory.
a. The scary part is that I've just described more than one
Authoritative Source of Advice about Writing and Publishing.
b. Any idiot can put up a website, too.
c. Check out your source's credentials.
i. It's always worth your while to assess the quality of the info
you're getting, because bad advice can cost you such an inordinate
amount of time and effort.